“I was just sitting there, and laughed,” Rivers recalls in an interview with the Daily Beast. “I heard an intake of breath behind me. A nurse had come in. She asked me if I was OK. I told her, ‘I was just thinking: my dad is having a really bad day. I imagined him in Heaven, saying, ‘She’s whaaat? She’s here? Heck. After all these years of not being yelled at.’”
Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987, after his wife’s Fox chat show had been canceled and the couple had separated.
In interviews, Joan Rivers told me more than once how furious Edgar’s suicide still made her, and—in her last major interview—how her friend and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan had arranged to have Edgar’s body moved home from Philadelphia, where he had killed himself.
In The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation, which she wrote after her mother died, Melissa recalls that her dedication was to her mother, “whom I miss every day, and for my father who is no longer resting in peace.”
As she looked at her mother’s dead body, Melissa thought, “Oh my god, my dad’s having a fucking bad day…He’s pissed.” She imagines them “spending the rest of eternity, pretending not to speak to each other.”
Melissa is as sharp as her mother, and frequently segues in our interview from something deeply felt to a hilarious zinger in a beat.
This summer, she is overseeing two auctions of her mother’s possessions: some ostentatious and very expensive, others less so. The first is at Christie’s on June 22, benefiting Guide Dogs For The Blind, and includes beloved Fabergé items, a Tiffany dog bowl, furs, jewelry, and a silk pagoda dog bed.
The second auction, of more “everyday items,” says Melissa, will take place at Litchfield County Auctions, July 19-21, and includes more art, furniture and jewelry, with proceeds going to two of Rivers’ favorite charities, God’s Love We Deliver and Guide Dogs For The Blind.
Future auctions of her possessions will raise money for other Rivers-approved charities like the LGBT Family Equality Council, and Melissa hopes “the gay community will come out in force” for the auctions.
“Obviously, it’s terribly emotional, going through my parents’ belongings and deciding what to sell. It’s going through your life, and deciding what pieces you want to keep. Everything has an emotion, a story and memory attached to it. It hasn’t been two years yet since my mother passed. Sometimes it feels like forever, sometimes it feels like yesterday.”
Going through Joan’s possessions, Melissa realized “the things that meant the most to me were the things that not anybody would want—the things on her night table and her vanity remind me of her the most.
“My mother loved her things. Fabergé was such a passion of hers and for my father too. Letting go of some of that has been terribly emotional for me.”
For Joan, Melissa says, her things were “meant to be loved, used, and enjoyed.” My mother told me, “‘Keep what you want, and sell the rest. Do some good with the money. Get something you love in the style you like’—which is a wonderful gift to leave.”
“I don’t think you ever really own these things—you’re just a caretaker of them while you have them. To put them in storage somewhere would be against everything my mother felt about them.”
Was it difficult to bid farewell to her mother’s Versailles-like apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, a plush paradise of gold, ornate furnishings and mouldings, and splashy antiques?
“It was incredibly difficult and emotional,” Melissa says. The apartment had become the family home after Edgar’s death. “It was so loved, so enjoyed—there are so many memories there. It was very, very hard and very hard on my son (Cooper, now 15). Selling my mother’s Connecticut home was very hard. My mother was one of those people who appreciated things: every object, every door handle. She loved it all so much.”
How would her mother have felt about the Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Fahd buying her apartment?
“The check cleared,” Melissa intones, deadpan.
Are the new owners keeping the golden, swag splendor of the apartment, I ask.
“Apparently they are,” Melissa says. “I heard they were doing work in the bathrooms and kitchen which was needed. I’ve never met them, but apparently they very much loved the spirit and feel of the apartment. It won’t exactly be their first residence.”
Melissa recently reached a reported eight-figure settlement with Yorkville Endoscopy, where her mother had gone into cardiac arrest during an outpatient procedure.
Last year, Melissa filed a medical malpractice suit against the practice, alleging they had mishandled her endoscopy and performed a laryngoscopy without her consent.
I ask if the settlement signals Melissa has reached a certain peace with how her mother died.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever make peace with it 100 per cent. But at what point do you just need to move forward? None of us want to relive the minute-by-minute record over and over of what happened, and have it played out in the press. At what point do you say that responsibility has been taken?
“My mom always believed you moved forward. You don’t live in the past. She was very ‘current’ to the very end. She never lived in the past. For the mental wellbeing of my son and myself, we cannot continue to rehash that kind of horror and play it out publicly.”
Melissa’s focus is now to fight to enshrine something she wants to call ‘Joan’s Law’ into legislation—a law that regulates outpatient clinics, “so no-one has to go through this kind of horror again. I felt that was the best place for our energies.”
Does she remain angry?
Melissa pauses. “It’s so easy to say I’m channeling this anger towards doing something positive. But grief is tricky. Do I have anger still? Of course. Am I trying to move forward? Of course. There are days I am still angry about my father’s suicide. Anger, when it comes to a complicated death, is very tricky. You wish there was a pat answer, but there isn’t a playbook. Am I angry? Yeah, you know how could I not be? People expect me to sort of not-be-human in my emotions. I’m supposed to have these easy answers, like I’m not angry…Well, I am human.”
Despite overseeing Fashion Police, as both host and co- executive producer, Melissa does not feel she holds Joan’s legacy.
“I think I am the caretaker of it. I think my mother’s legacy is much more than Fashion Police. I think she did so much for women, and changed the comedy industry. I think a lot of her legacy is just now coming into focus—and the doors she opened.”
Hearing the replaying of Hillary Clinton’s glass ceiling speech of eight years ago, as she takes on the mantle of the Democrats’ presidential nominee, has made Melissa feel that “my mom did the same thing for so many comedians and women writers in the industry. ”
“My responsibility is to make sure the importance of what she did is seen and carried on in a historical perspective in a much more serious way than ‘Gee she was funny.’” Melissa pauses, and adds, “But boy, she was funny.”
Talking of Clinton, Rivers and Donald Trump were good friends—she even won Celebrity Apprentice. What would she made of his presidential run, and where would her vote had gone?
“That’s the million dollar question,” says Melissa. “I can’t answer it. I think she’s enjoying the whole thing. Before Celebrity Apprentice and since my mother passed—but before his bid for the presidency—Donald Trump has been a tremendous friend to my family, and tremendously supportive of me, in completely private ways.”
“It’s complicated. My mother also always believed that women are significantly smarter than men. I’m not really 100 per cent sure what she’d be doing right now, but I could pull out 100 of her jokes about why women are smarter than men. The amazing thing about this election is that it has engaged a whole new generation and gotten people to talk and be engaged that never would before, and I think that’s really important.”
What about Trump’s tone, and speeches? “I haven’t loved the tone,” Melissa admits, sighing, “but it’s been effective. It’s gotten people talking. You might not like the delivery, but the message is sure getting through. Wherever you go there’s political discussion. That’s democracy at work.”
Mention of Joan’s formidable roster of jokes reminds me of her formidable dresser of gags, all meticulously catalogued in alphabetical subject order, which she showed me when I once interviewed her in her apartment. What is Melissa’s plan for it?
“I’m still figuring that out. I keep having this vision of the last scene in the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the art goes into a warehouse full of crates, and I freak out. We can’t let it just sit in a warehouse somewhere. I would love to see it where it will be loved and appreciated and used. A number of universities have asked for it. Obviously, the Smithsonian and Library of Congress have asked for it.”
She laughs. “We’re still going through boxes. An assistant just called and said they’d found more boxes of stuff in a basement. Let’s be honest, this woman was a maximalist.”
When I interviewed Joan, she told me how much she loved Melissa and Cooper, how her relationship with her daughter was cleared of all the obstacles that had derailed it in the past, and how much she adored her grandson.
As they watched her die, Melissa tells me, “There was nothing that needed to be said. and that’s such a gift. There were no amends that needed to be made. There was no question how much we all loved each other, and how much each of us was loved by the other. It was an amazing situation to be in.”
When we discussed mortality, Joan told me she was very worried by the idea of leaving Melissa on her own.
“Of course. That’s also part of being parent,” says Melissa. “I worry. I worry what’s going to happen. It’s a parent thing. You worry your child is going to be taken care of, even though they’re capable. You worry because you love them as a parent. You want to solve and fix everything, you want to make sure everything is OK. Always. It never goes away.”
Her agent, she says, just had a baby, and called Melissa to say the baby wouldn’t settle. “This emotion you’re having is sheer panic, it doesn’t go away,” Melissa told her. “It doesn’t get easier.”
Cooper, she told her friend, was trying to get his driver’s permit. Her friend told her that was fantastic.
“No it’s not,” Melissa told her, laughing as she retells it to me. “Taking care of a child goes from, ‘I can’t get him to burp,’ to ‘I can’t let him loose on the road.’”
Melissa, Joan, and Cooper were such a tight unit of three, becoming a unit of two has been hard, says Melissa. “I’m not going to lie and say it's been easy. Last year, my son said, ‘Nothing will ever be good again.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. Things won’t be the same again, but that doesn’t mean they won't be good.’ And that’s the truth. It’s figuring it out.
“Cooper was having a moody teenage moment. I told him, ‘You know what? I get in a bad mood and grumpy too, but I think we are just so lucky we have each other. We have a better relationship than most people have with anyone else in their lives. That might not make me less annoyed, less angry, less annoyed in the moment, but somewhere in my head it makes me feel better ‘cos I know we have that.’”
How did Cooper respond? “He just grunted and acknowledged it, which for a 15-year-old is effusive.”
Joan spoke so warmly and lovingly about Cooper, I say.
“He was hit very, very hard by her death,” Melissa says. “It’s much more difficult for a teenage boy than it is for an adult. Being a kid is hard enough. He was 13 when she died. They were so close. His school kept reminding us we need to be treating this as the death of a parent. She wasn't some old lady he saw occasionally, but someone active in his life.”
She adored him, I say. “And he adored her,” says Melissa.
Does she foresee a long future for Fashion Police?
“As long as people keep wearing stuff on the red carpet,” Melissa says, laughing. “I think the show has found its heart again.”
Tony Tripoli, Joan’s scriptwriter and the show’s co-executive producer, told me recently the team had just left the original studio where the show was filmed with Joan.
“That day was very hard for me,” says Melissa. “I scattered some of my mother’s ashes in the building, on the set, and in her dressing room. It was definitely a goodbye, and in a lot of ways a step forward. It was good to leave the studio with the show back on track and people enjoying it again. It wasn’t like leaving with the tail between our legs. We were leaving very proud.”
Has Melissa scattered all Joan’s ashes? “No, we’re doing it incrementally over a period of time. I’m sending little packages around the world to friends in different places. It’s an ongoing process. Most of her is still in my closet near to my shoes, so I know at least she’s happy there.”
Does Melissa feel Joan's presence? “Oh my God,” Melissa says, laughing. “She never shuts up. She’s always in my head—this white noise, this endless chatter. Do you really think she’d go quietly? You spent a little bit of time with her: I bet she’s still in your head. I hear her all the time, whether I want to or not.”
From her mother, Melissa inherited the propulsive work ethic captured brilliantly in the 2010 documentary A Piece of Work. “Yes,” Melissa says, laughing again. “She wondered why I was so crazed, worried, and freaked out about work all the time. I have no idea where I got it from.”
For her mother, the constant fretting over gigs, working, and currency, was centered around “the fear of being forgotten, of being left behind, of never getting to do what she loved ever again, the fear of that being taken away.” Melissa pauses. “I think I am very similar. What do I mean, ‘think’? I am, and my therapist can confirm that.”
She has Fashion Police, two talk show pilots she is filming this summer, and is considering writing another book. “It doesn’t feel like an awful lot, because I am insane. I’m like my parents: nothing ever feels like enough.”
She is, Melissa adds, like her father in key ways—the calmer, more rational presence who stabilized her mother. "It's probably why my mother and I were so good in business together. I think before I speak, which was something very challenging for her--and that's putting it mildly. But, like her, I can be passionate and fearful too."
Towards her father, Melissa says, yes she still feels anger, but hasn’t let that anger define her. She speaks to families and loved ones of those who have committed suicide, and knows “what a complicated healing process that can be.”
Being an orphan now, Melissa says, “is such an awful feeling. It’s like you’re alone, and I’m an only child. You don’t have a person to share memories with, to speak in that shorthand with, or just to call. I say that losing the first parent is a comma, and the second parent is a period. Now you’re the next one in the firing line, and you wonder, ‘How’s my child going to feel when I die?”’
She laughs. “I did say to my boyfriend the other day, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be with an orphan? You don’t have to deal with the mother-in-law. Do you realize how much more valuable that makes me?”’
Joan was very concerned about that aspect of Melissa’s life—she wanted her, she told me, to find someone she was happy with.
For a year-and-a-half, Melissa has been with talent agent Mark Rousso. “We were good friends for quite a while before we had a relationship,” she says.
Are they in love? “I hope so. We live together,” she says, laughing. Will they get married? “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m the marrying type any more (Melissa and her first husband, Cooper’s father, John Endicott, were divorced in 2003.) I just can’t see myself…I don’t know. He’s very stable, very nice, very sweet, very funny, very kind.”
And Cooper likes him? “Yes, we were good friends, so it’s not like a complete stranger has entered his life.”
Part of mother and son navigating their grief together, Melissa says, is being aware of all the absurdities around death.
“We are a family who always managed to find laughter, because we always had the ability to step back and look at a situation and say, ‘Can you believe this shit?’ I would go into my mother’s hospital room, after seeing something happen, laugh and tell her, ‘You have to wake up. I can’t believe what just happened.”
The funeral she oversaw for her mother, which I attended, was astonishing—moving, affection-rich, and also deliciously profane and crazy. “She would have been annoyed,” Melissa says, laughing. “‘Don’t spend money on my funeral. I’m dead’ was her whole thing.’”
What would Joan have wanted for her does Melissa think?
Melissa mulls this for a moment. “She would have wanted me to make sure that I carried myself well through the process, in a dignified way. We weren’t big public emotion people. She would have wanted to make sure if I stepped out of the house that I looked good.” Melissa laughs, and then pauses to imagine her mother cautioning, “Don’t let anyone say, ‘Oh God, she looks like shit.’”